As military leaders and their spouses prepare for separation from military life, the tendency may be to put the initial focus on a place to live as well as the launch of a civilian job search.
What is frequently overlooked is the importance of being mentally and physically prepared for transition.
Leaving the relatively enclosed and insular military community after so many years living within it can be an emotionally and mentally difficult process; often, this only becomes apparent after separation from service occurs. In the most severe cases, it can lead to unhealthy conditions such as obesity, bulimia, alcoholism and other ailments. These illnesses can negatively impact one’s capacity to successfully tackle other key components of transition, including the ability to undertake the new job search and overall readiness to fully adapt to civilian life.
I asked Dr. Toya Kelley, Medical Director, Executive Health, at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, her views about the role of mental and physical wellness for senior leaders and their spouses in the transition process.
VSB: What are some of the common health challenges facing senior military leaders as they separate from long careers in military service?
Dr. Kelley: For the most part, this patient population is overall fairly healthy. They are very active and have been able to receive health care when they needed it. We are commonly treating chronic illnesses like high blood pressure or high cholesterol. We also see a lot of joint pain (hip, knee, back, wrist) and hearing loss.
What I think is less often discussed, but just as important is the mental transition from a life in the military to the civilian sector. There is a lot of medically significant anxiety, depression and insomnia that goes untreated until the separation from the military and even then it is often times difficult to get the patient to admit and treat the issue.
VSB: Do you think spouses of retiring senior military leaders fare any better or do they face unique challenges of their own?
Dr. Kelley: The spouses often times do well with maintaining their health. But sometimes they are so involved with the responsibilities of a senior leader’s mission and their children, that they will put their own health on hold and are then faced with the same untreated chronic illnesses as their spouse. I would have to say that often times the spouse is a little more vocal about the mental transition from military life to civilian life. It is often times just as difficult of a transition for the spouse as it is for the military member.
VSB: What do you see as the key health priorities for senior military leaders and their spouses to consider as they prepare to separate from military life?
Dr. Kelley: I think that all patients should focus on prevention. The best way to do this is to ensure annual exams are completed with the physician and all age and gender appropriate screening labs, immunizations, and imaging are addressed. This is a good way to address chronic illnesses or prevent them from occurring.
Also, it is important to prepare mentally for the transition ahead of time. Maybe talk with friends that have done it recently, or plan for the next career or last physical move at least the year before if not two years before. Also plan your personal goals just like you would plan your career goals. This way, you can maintain a balance in life.
VSB: What are some helpful resources that senior leaders and spouses might wish to pursue to facilitate a healthier transition into civilian life?
Dr. Kelley: You should always utilize your primary care physician. Being open and honest about your health needs with your provider can prove to be very beneficial. An Ethiopian proverb states, “He who conceals his disease cannot expect to be cured.”
You should also reach out to those military friends that have transitioned recently. Ask about their challenges and their successes. Your military relationships are invaluable, and should be cultivated. Also, websites like this one are very helpful and allow for a forum to discuss these concerns.